The Audi A3 is excellent. We know this because we gave it the What Car? Car of the Year Award in 2013, and it remains our favourite premium family hatchback.
So, the idea of an A3 that will hit 60mph in a hot-hatch like 7.6sec, run on pure electric power for up to 31 miles and, thanks to its 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine, go on to cover another 553 miles, sounds too good to be true right? Welcome to the Audi A3 e-tron.
The five-door Sportback model is Audi’s first plug-in hybrid, and at £34,950 before the £5000 Government discount, it competes closely with the likes of the BMW i3 and Vauxhall Ampera.
A full charge from a domestic 13 Amp socket will take around four hours; a higher-amperage dedicated public or home wall-charger should halve that time.
What’s the Audi A3 e-tron like to drive?
Easy and relaxed, although in practice it's not really an electrified hot hatch.
Power is sent through a six-speed automatic gearbox, and with easily modulated throttle and brake response, and smooth power delivery, the A3 e-tron is a doddle to drive smoothly. There is an occasional hesitation as the petrol engine kicks in, if you accelerate hard, which disrupts the otherwise seamless progress.
It’s also quick, even when it’s in pure-electric mode – one of four driving modes available. These include one that automatically uses both petrol and electric motors according to the driving style, one to preserve the battery, and one to increase battery life by using the petrol motor as a generator.
However, while the A3 e-tron is nippy around town and even on the motorway, the extra weight does show in its handling, because it will wash wide through fast corners earlier than standard A3 models. Even so, the steering is well-weighted and makes it easy to place the A3 on the road, and body roll is progressive and nicely controlled.
Ride comfort is great over high-speed undulations, and the e-tron feels settled and comfortable in most situations, but it can become a bit bouncy and jarring over hard-worn or rougher town roads.
However the really outstanding thing about the e-tron is, predictably, its refinement. In EV mode there’s no whine from the electric motor, and what little tyre noise there is can easily be ignored. There’s a bit of noticeable vibration when the petrol engine fires up, but otherwise the petrol unit is refined, and a lot less intrusive than the two-cylinder engine you get in the BMW i3.
What’s the Audi A3 e-tron like inside?
The A3 e-tron has the same stylish, uncluttered cabin as the standard A3, with loads of plush-feeling materials, a retractable colour screen and a minimal array of well-damped buttons.
Only an ‘EV’ button (which toggles through the four driving modes) and a power/charge readout in place of the traditional rev-counter distinguishes the A3 e-tron cabin from the rest of the range.
Equipment is very generous too, and includes sat-nav, iPod or MP3 player connection, dual-zone climate control, auto lights and wipers, and a multifunction steering wheel.
Rear space is also unchanged, so there's enough leg- and headroom for two adults to lounge in comfort. Only the boot disappoints. The batteries sit under the rear seats, so the fuel tank (reduced to 40 litres) has been moved to beneath the boot, eating into boot space and reducing it to 280 litres (down from 380 in the standard A3).
Still, while the boot space lacks the capacity and depth of other A3 models, it’s still a broad, square-shaped space that’ll be fine for light family use or weekend luggage.
Should I buy one?
Probably not if you’re a private buyer, unless you’re sure that the savings you can make on fuel and congestion or parking charges will definitely make up for the premium you’ll pay over a standard A3.
After all, an A3 1.4 TFSI 150 Sport with cylinder-on-demand and S tronic auto gearbox is great to drive, promises great economy (with 60.1mpg claimed), refinement and performance, and costs more than £4500 less than the A3 e-tron, even after factoring in the cost of the extra kit.
However, the A3 e-tron is a far more compelling prospect for company car buyers. Thanks to its super-low CO2, it falls into the 5% company car tax band, making it seriously cheap at £58 per month (for 40% tax payers), and unlike a BMW i3, it's a company car that demands very few sacrifices..
Still, the BMW’s much longer pure electric range and more entertaining handling may give it the edge for some buyers, so we’ll have to wait to test them back-to-back in the UK for a final verdict, but the A3 e-tron is certainly up there with the very best plug-in hybrids and electric cars on the market.
What Car? says...
Engine size 1.4-litre petrol-electric hybrid
Price from £34,950 (£29,950 after Government £5k discount)
Torque 258lb ft
0-62mph 7.6 seconds
Top speed 137mph (80mph in EV mode)
Fuel economy 176.6mpg
Combined range 584 miles
Electric range 31 miles